Material Marvels: Hamburg’s reflection

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2018

At the western point of Hamburg’s HafenCity, Germany, stands Europe’s largest inner-city development, Elbphilharmonie, which is set to become a centre for culture and social life, as Ellis Davies reports.

Elbphilharmonie is a city. Nevertheless, its varied elements and uses are combined in one building. The main attraction is the grand hall. It is 50m high and contains 2,100 seats
around a central stage that houses the orchestra. It also has a chamber music hall, restaurants, bars, a panorama terrace with views of Hamburg and the harbour, as well as apartments, a hotel and parking facilities. 

Its architecture, perched atop the Kaispeicher A – a redoubtable brick warehouse – is contradictory. The original and archaic feel of the Kaispeicher A, marked by its relationship to the harbour, contrasts with the elegant world of the philharmonic. First conceived in 2001, the design and construction of the building was finally completed
in January 2017. 

Building on the old 

Kaispeicher A was built in the 1960s and now forms the foundation of the Elbphilharmonie’s glass structure. Designed by Hamburg architect Werner Kallmorgan, Kaispeicher A was used to store tea, cocoa and tobacco, and was the third iteration of the building. The first was built in 1875 by John Dalman, destroyed in World War II and rebuilt, but demolished to make way for the final design. 

The building sits atop 1,111 concrete poles, which were driven through the mud and soft soil layers of clay and peat into the underlying viable sands. These poles have a diameter of 50cm and were designed to carry 160 tonnes each. The warehouse, which is made of red brick, is the only store in the harbour that sits on top of seawater. 

The riverside wave

The Elbphilharmonie rises from the bricks of Kaispeicher A, making the building 110m high. Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the structure resembles a wave composed of around 1,100 glass elements, an area of approximately 21,800m2, which are variously cambered, curved and individually marked. The purpose of the glass is to mirror the sky, city and the River Elbe, along which it stands, so that the appearance of the façade is constantly changing along with its surroundings and the weather. 

The glass was purpose built – 601 of the panels are multifunctional double-glazing with curved edges, which are printed, coated and formed at 600oC. The other 1,583 are flat, low iron glass, which is particularly transparent. Curtain walls are employed, each made up of two modules of 4.30 x 3.35m and 5.00 x 3.35m. Each of the panels contains a varying dot matrix print to act as sun protection, depending on the room it covers. 

Elbphilharmonie’s glass exterior also features balconies made of glass fibre reinforced polymer. This material enables free forms, which allowed the architects to shape the balconies to resemble tuning forks. They are distributed around the façade to act as viewing galleries for the concert foyer and apartments – the largest measures 6.45 x 5.00m and weighs two tonnes.

The glass panels were designed to handle gale force winds and torrential rain of up to 150km/h. Testing for this was carried out using a 2,200-horse power aircraft engine, which produced a dynamic wind pressure of 600Pa. The panels were also sprayed with 20 litres of water per minute, using a spray rack, to test their resistance to heavy rain. 

Giving the façade its wave-like form is the roof. Consisting of eight concavely curved surfaces, it covers approximately 6,200m2 and takes the form of an elegant wave. It has 5,800 circular aluminium plates mounted to the structure, which shimmer and reflect light. The structure contains 1,000 curved steel beams, made up of singular steel bars that were individually preformed. The total structural weight of the roof comes in at around 850 tonnes. 

The grand hall

Beneath the wave sits the centrepiece of the Elbphilharmonie – the grand hall. Rows of seats extend vertically from the central stage, almost blending in with the walls and ceiling – this vertical design means that no member of the audience is ever more than 30m away from the conductor. The hall is designed to be acoustically as perfect as possible, going as far as having a specific sound treatment material developed by internationally renowned acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota – known for the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan, the Bard College Performing Arts Centre in New York, Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA, and the Kauffman Centre for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, USA.

White Skin, as it is known, is high-density gypsum fibreboard that is cut precisely to reflect sound and disperse it around the hall. The 10,000 panels are fixed around the concert hall, covering 6,500m2

Extending down from the ceiling is a large cylindrical reflector that acts as further sound distribution, a giant chandelier and storage for much of the hall’s technical functions. The reflector measures 15m in diameter, and comprises a steel structure and white cladding. It contains stage equipment, lighting, speakers and four organ registers, which bring its weight up to 100 tonnes.

Another unique feature of the grand hall is its organ, on which 45 organ craftsmen worked for 25,000 hours. Developed by Orgelbau Klais, Germany, with expert Manfred Schwartz, the instrument was specifically designed to fit into the architecture of the hall. Instead of the traditional layout, being situated high above the audience in a cluster of pipes, it weaves through the audience. The 4,765 tin alloy pipes – apart from 380 wooden ones – that range in length from 11mm–10m, are visible around the hall, and are close enough to the seats for the audience to touch them. This concept plays into Elbphilharmonie’s brief that the concert hall involves everyone in the music, as concertgoers can physically touch the instrument. The pipes are protected against any damage from human hands by a laminate. An organ façade, and opening, is situated to the right of the podium, which is made up of the largest metal pipes.

The organ has two consoles – an electric action console, which is moveable on the orchestra podium, and a mechanical action console that is attached to the front of the organ. 

It is a four-manual organ suited to performing 19th and 20th century music, as well as contemporary pieces. It can produce high sounds close to the upper limits of human hearing, at 15,600 hertz, and lower sounds from the organs longest pipe, a 10m wooden example that stretches several tiers and emits a sound akin to a ‘muffled tingling’, of 16 hertz, according to Klais. 


Besides the grand hall, the Elbphilharmonie has the recital hall, designed to seat up to 550 people on the east side of the building. The smaller venue uses 120 wave-shaped solid oak wooden panelling mounted on Gifatec-panels, which is suited for chamber music, as acoustic treatment.

The smallest hall, Kaistudio 1, holds 150 people, and forms part of the music education area, which spans seven rooms. The studio is used to run classes for children and young people.

The plaza and entrance 

Tying the building together is the plaza, a 4,000m2 area that offers a 360o panoramic view of the city and docklands. Located 37m above the ground, the plaza serves as a meeting place for all, be they concertgoers, hotel guests or those admiring the view. A walkway runs around the outside of the plaza, and the inside features foyers leading to the grand hall and the recital hall, a café and the hotel lobby.

Leading to this viewing platform is a glass-sequined tunnel that emerges from the Kaispeicher A via an escalator. The tunnel is encrusted with glass chips that bounce light off each other as the visitors traverse the curved escalator. Before reaching the plaza, the escalator passes a large panoramic window, from which the port and landing stages are visible. 

In the Elbphilharmonie, the architects have tried to achieve a building that offers variety, spectacle and culture. Featuring unique materials and striking architecture, it could breathe life into Hamburg’s once forgotten district.